The NBA Playoffs begin with four series opening on Saturday: Defending NBA champions, Golden State Warriors, hosting the Houston Rockets; Toronto Raptors at home vs the Indiana Pacers; Oklahoma City Thunder visited by the Dallas Mavericks; and the very intriguing series between the Boston Celtics and the Atlanta Hawks.
Indiana Pacers vs Toronto Raptors, Game 1: Two teams that play very differently to win games. The Raptors are fifth in the NBA in offensive efficiency while the Pacers rank near the bottom. Their defense, however, is still the forte of this group despite the changes made by Frank Vogel over the last two seasons. The Pacers are third in the NBA in defensive efficiency, giving up 100.2 points per 100 possessions. The Raptors are 11th defensively but 5th in offensive efficiency, averaging 107 points per 100 possessions.
Paul George is about half the Pacers offense. But he shoots just 41.8% from the field, and in order for the Pacers to have any chance, they’ll need to get some consistency from Monta Ellis and other players around the perimeter, while also improving their rebounding abilities, being one of the worst teams in the league in that regard, grabbing just 49.6% of available rebounds in games. Avoiding foolish fouls, a problem they’ve had against the Raptors this season, will also determine how this series develops.
The Raptors won’t have the DeMarre Carroll they were hoping for when they signed him, but he’s back and slowly finding his footing. The Raptors do have Terrence Ross and the emerging Norman Powell, but Carroll is their best perimeter defender, and the better he comes back to full capacity the better.
Houston Rockets vs Golden State Warriors, Game 1: What can you say about the Warriors that hasn’t already been said? About Stephen Curry? About Draymond Green? There’s a reason Rockets fans, when polled, have 0% faith in their team in this series. The NBA doesn’t want a predictable playoff, but there is fear that the Warriors are going to have a smooth ride into the NBA finals and through that series too.
That is what happens when their MVP seems to be improving with every passing game, reaching levels before believed to be untouchable. Curry averaged 30.1 points per game while shooting 50.4% from the field, 45.4% from beyond the arc and 90.8%. Yes, the even rarer 50-45-90 club. That with 6.7 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game. With 402 three pointers knocked down this season, the only player with more than 300 three pointers in one season. James Harden has been terrific since the All-Star break and if it wasn’t for him, the Rockets would be thinking about lottery picks (maybe it would have been better for them). But the Rockets rarely look like a team. The Warriors look like the perfect combination of individual ability and team play; maybe the best in history.
It’s hard to find an aspect that the Warriors aren’t better at than the Rockets, which makes it so difficult to believe the Rockets can cause an upset, or even make this into something more than a sweep. Yes, Curry and Klay Thompson can catch bad shooting days which always makes it more interesting. But overall, no matter what lineup or trickery the Rockets pull off, they’ll struggle not just winning, but providing real competition to a historically-good team.
Boston Celtics vs Atlanta Hawks, Game 1: A much more difficult to read series compared to the previous one we talked about. Both teams with the same record. Boston are the slightly better offensive team, combining the Isaiah Thomas show with some smart passing and shooting, while the Hawks are a little bit behind in terms of offense but offer a much more even feel of the spread. Defensively, the Hawks have given up just 98.8 points per 100 possessions this season, the second best in the NBA.
Paul Millsap is the best player for the Hawks. He does everything. He has emerged as one of the best defensive players in the NBA while doing everything on offense too. He’s averaging 17 per game with 9 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.8 blocks per game. The Hawks haven’t been the whirlwind kind of team they were last season when they finished first in the East, but their defense is probably better, and there’s one year of experience on their back.
The Celtics still haven’t won a playoff series with this group, and got a clean sweep last season against the Cavaliers. Their interior defense is still a big problem which probably makes them the underdogs in this series, but their backcourt on both ends of the floor is one of the best in the NBA. If someone like Marcus Smart can get out of his shooting funk (one of the worst seasons ever in terms of shooting), they can get some sort of edge against a Hawks team that seems a bit more ready for what’s about to come.
Dallas Mavericks vs Oklahoma City Thunder, Game 1: While the Mavericks looked good in the final month of the season, clinching a playoff spot and even moving up to sixth in the conference, there just seems to be too short of a blanket to cover all their deficiencies against the Thunder. Their defense has improved with Justin Anderson finally finding minutes and the right role, while J.J. Barea has shown once again just how big of a heart he has. But the Thunder are simply too good of a basketball team.
Oklahoma City have two of the five best players in the NBA in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, a triple double machine who as long as the game isn’t close in the end, is pretty much impossible to slow down. While Rick Carlisle is smart enough to recognize those moments when Westbrook’s Tasmanian devil act leaves his team vulnerable, it’s hard to see his players capitalizing on it each time during a while series, especially with Dirk Nowitzki struggling of late.
And the Mavs lack certain depth the Thunder have with players like Dion Waiters (depending on which side of the bed he wakes up on) and Enes Kanter, who brings unstoppable offense each time he plays, while his defense isn’t as bad as it used to be. The Thunder are flawed which gives Dallas chances to pounce on but in the grand scheme of things, this doesn’t look like one of those series that will go down to the wire.